Racial Backlash From the Election: Blowing the Whistle on Dog-Whistlers

5 years ago

The insults aimed at the the first black President of the United States during the 2012 election season did not end on November 6. Why are people more malicious this time around? And how are others supposed to react? During the 2008 election, President Obama was framed as a Kenyan-born, Communist, sleeper-cell Muslim terrorist with an angry, whitey-hating Black Panther for a wife. This year, extreme right-leaning Republicans not only questioned his ability as POTUS, his academic credentials (as Donald Trump did) and his penchant to actually care about Americans who are not millionaires, they also attacked the people they thought would vote for him: women, minorities and the poor, making sweeping generalizations and conveniently forgetting individual autonomy.

However, in this postmortem season, the people who were not overtly targeted during the campaign - Republican supporters who criticized the President in subtle, and not-so subtle, racial rhetoric- have taken to the Internet to voice their displeasure, crassly disrespecting an American President in ways that no white president has ever experienced. There have been reports of a number of foiled assassination attempts on his life, and there was even a man that allegedly committed suicide because of the re-election.

The problem is: how to react to those race-based comments of unhappiness over the re-election of President Obama?

Just like real-life insults, one way of handling the matter is to confront the attacker directly. That’s what Jezebel did by publishing a post that displayed a slideshow that includes the pictures and handles of the posters of a number of extremely racists tweets that appeared right after the election (I have to admit I found the “attack the North and take Back America” tweet, amusing. To me, that smells more of absolute, pant-peeing fear than unbridled hatred. Poor kid).

Whistle, Image Credit: Shutterstock

Politicians and pundits have also voiced their displeasure post-election via “dog whistles”: carefully racially-coded messages that are, if done right, understood by those who feel the same way, while allowing them to maintain the appearance of innocence. Even racists understand that making their opinions openly known could jeopardize their jobs and respectability. The recently unearthed video that features Republican political consultant Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” (i.e: discussing how to do the dog whistle ‘right’) provides a bit of background to the causes Republicans blamed for their candidate’s loss. Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan attributed it to the hold that Obama had in urban areas, and Governor Mitt Romney’s offers these comments about why President Obama was re-elected: he promised free stuff to people that don’t deserve it and when it comes down to it, all those people stick together to overthrow the white man:

What the president, president's campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote... With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest was a big gift. Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people.

Lee Atwater would be proud. Not because they provide a great example of reading between the lines, but that on first glance, many people would agree that these comments are true. The issue is, why are providing initiatives to assist young people and offering more accessible and affordable healthcare for those who need it, a bad thing? While there is a sense of an ulterior motive to Governor Bobby Jindal’s criticism about Romney’s post-election remarks, his acknowledgement of the racial coded remarks were not only noted by mainstream media outlets, but appeared to be an attempt to undo the racist branding that the GOP incurred this election season:

That has got to be one of the most fundamental takeaways from this election: If we’re going to continue to be a competitive party and win elections on the national stage and continue to fight for our conservative principles, we need two messages to get out loudly and clearly: One, we are fighting for 100 percent of the votes, and secondly, our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream. Period. No exceptions.

What seemed worse was when the racist vitriol came from young people, people who were raised in a era in which interaction with a myriad of people from different cultures and ethnicities is more commonplace than than in previous generations. Quite frankly, they should know better.

But is public shaming effective? Gene Demby at Racialicious questioned the actions by Jezebel writer Tracie Egan Morrissey, who tracked down the Twitter posters and contacted their schools, asking them if they knew what their students were up to.

There was something about both the execution and tone of that post and the comments section that felt both cynical and self-congratulatory — look at how not-racist we all are, guys! And perhaps not coincidentally, this kind of stuff clicks really well.

Demby also wondered if publicly shaming these teenagers was effective in
curbing their racist verbiage, as it focused on the language and not on the more pernicious issues surrounding racism:

But the more vexing problem with Morrissey’s stunt — and this is a thread that runs through a lot of our public conversations about race — is that it bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist; unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters.

Responses were mixed. Some, like the commenters on the Racialicious piece felt that the kids deserved to get whatever negative response came their way. Others, like Kashmir Hill from Forbes.com , agreed that while publishing the Twitter handles and pictures of the teenagers was a bit excessive, this could serve as a lesson to those brats that what they post online will stay with them forever:

It will surely rise to the first page for all of the teenagers mentioned and will certainly haunt them in the short term, and maybe for the rest of their lives. College admissions officers are increasingly researching candidates online after all; these 12 high school students now have a rather nasty addition to their application packages.

Besides my disdain for the twits that tweeted, and my personal agreement that they get what they deserve (and that saying you are not a racist does not mean that you are not a racist), I have to wonder: are we holding the regular people on the Internet up to a higher accountability than the dog-whistling pundits and politicians?

What do you think?


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

My Book: What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal 

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